The first public performance by Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie occurred more than 13 years ago at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee.
Gano asked Ritchie (then age 20) to perform with him at the school’s National Honor Society talent showcase.
A King senior and honor society member, Gano told organizers they would play a mellow song called “Good Friend.”
Before showtime, Ritchie says, Gano replaced it with another original song, the snarling “Gimme the Car.” Like so many Femmes recordings in later years, the number featured Gano’s one-step-from-the-asylum vocal delivery and lyrics that were equally desperate and crude.
“It caused quite a sensation,” Ritchie says. “The teachers freaked out.”
Two years and a lot of street corner gigs after that high school appearance, Gano, bassist Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo recorded the Femmes’ debut album and launched a successful career as the lone purveyors of acoustic hard rock.
Now Gano is 30 and a New Yorker; Ritchie’s 32 and still a Milwaukeean. With new drummer and ex-BoDean Guy Hoffman in tow, the band is touring in support of the retrospective album “Add It Up (1981-1993).”
It will stop in Madison Monday night.
“Our crowds are still very young,” Ritchie said before a show at the University of Delaware. “There are fans from 10 years ago, but there’s always fresh blood in the crowd, and that’s great.
“I went to see Cheap Trick, and everybody was in their 30s in the audience. At a Lou Reed show, everybody was in their 30s or 40s. Those acts put on good shows, but it puts it in perspective that we’re lucky to keep the kids interested.”
Last year, the Femmes split ties with Slash/Warner Bros. Records. They’ll have a new album out on Elektra Records in March. On its current tour of clubs and small theaters, however, the band concentrates on the past.
That means plenty of selections from its steady-selling, self-titled debut, which sold more than 1.5 million copies, a remarkable tally for a release that never entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Subsequent albums were adequate sellers but sold far fewer copies.
Still, there may be fertile ground for a Femmes renaissance next spring with several stations, including WMAD/FM 92.1, highlighting college rock. But Ritchie is cautious about jumping on the alternative bandwagon.
“I think (record companies) are open to the concept of alternative as a selling point, but I don’t think people necessarily mean that they really want to hear alternative music. Pearl Jam – is that alternative? I don’t think so. It’s heavy metal.
“It’s good that people are listening to so-called alternative music. But it also means there’s more competition in the marketplace. When we came out, it was ourselves, R.E.M. and a few other bands.”
Madison fans helped boost the Femmes during the band’s infancy, but the city’s support cooled in the mid- to late ’80s.
“In our early days, we used to play at people’s houses and get 400 people in there,” Ritchie says. “And we played a lot of places like the Havana Club. Then the market sort of dwindled for us. I don’t know why.”
Over the years, however, Ritchie’s respect for Gano – the band’s seemingly reluctant frontman and principal songwriter – has increased.
“Sure, he’s pretty eccentric. But part of his appeal and his lyrics’ appeal is that he’s not afraid to portray himself in a dorky light. That’s different than your average rock star.”
Ritchie laughs. “You have Bruce Springsteen spending millions to try to convince you he’s a gas station attendant. Guys like Sting and Bono make you think they’re the new Christ. By comparison, maybe Gordon’s a regular guy.”